Jim O’Brien’s 76ers will play the same style of basketball that the Celtics have played over the past couple of years. What will that mean in terms of trades, expected playing time, and changes in Allen Iverson’s performance?

Obieball in Philly

Philip Maymin
Basketball News Services  

Jim O’Brien’s 76ers will play the same style of basketball that the Celtics have played over the past couple of years. What will that mean in terms of trades, expected playing time, and changes in Allen Iverson’s performance?

There are two kinds of coaches: those who adapt their systems to fit their players, and those who adapt their players to fit their system. Neither approach is necessarily better. Even longevity and winning is no indication: Red Auerbach and Pat Riley run whatever system plays to their roster’s strengths, but Phil Jackson and Jerry Sloan always play the same way, whether it’s a triangle offense or old-school pick-and-rolls.

Jim O’Brien is a coach that always plays the same way. This year in Boston he was looking to modify his style to fit Danny Ainge’s image of an up-tempo, offensive-minded team. He simply couldn’t do it. You might argue that he couldn’t do it because of the many trades that Ainge pulled off this year. Possibly. But the Celtics didn’t run all season long, no matter how much time they had to play together. You might argue that learning up-tempo basketball, especially for a young team, is virtually impossible. Witness the Washington Wizards, where former Nets assistant Eddie Jordan couldn’t get them to run either. That’s certainly a factor. But there should at least be some improvement in the fast breaking shown. There should at least be visible in the eyes of all the players the desire – no, the need – to fast break at every opportunity. Instead, the Celtics tend to run only rarely.

The biggest indication that O’Brien is a coach that sticks to his system regardless of the talent he is guiding is his reliance on his assistant Dick Harter. Harter devised an intriguingly complex defense that requires fronting the post always. It’s a system that is detrimental to fast breaks by its very nature, as the defensive man ends up being boxed out by the offensive man after a missed shot. Without the big men in good rebounding position, the guards have to stay back to help get the ball off the glass, and there is no one left to run.

It’s not a bad thing to be a system coach. O’Brien is in good company with Jackson and Sloan. It does, however, make certain things predictable. Most of all, because O’Brien brought Harter in with him to Philadelphia, we know we can expect him to start molding the players to fit his system.

How can coaches modify players to fit their system? There are three principal ways:

1) Influence their GMs to make trades to bring in the type of player they need. This means O’Brien will apply pressure to get quick forwards that shoot threes. Think players like Boston’s Walter McCarty and Mark Blount, Cleveland’s Eric Williams and Tony Battie, and New Jersey’s Rodney Rogers. He may try to get the Sixers to pursue these types of players in particular but if the finances don’t work, we can still be sure he’ll pursue players of their type. Someone like Derrick Coleman doesn’t fit very well with O’Brien’s vision.

2) They can teach their players how to play the game their way. O’Brien is excellent at this. He runs practices and drills specifically to teach people the complicated Harter defense. Eventually, the players will learn.

3) Finally, he can use every coach’s ultimate tool: playing time. He plays only those players that play his system.

O’Brien’s offensive system is geared to beat their own defensive system. O’Brien likes to spread the floor and shoot lots of threes. That essentially means he doesn’t need a point guard. He prefers a combo guard like Tony Delk or Mike James that can shoot as well as dish. He likes his forwards to be spot-up shooters, preferably from downtown. His guards essentially get free reign. Paul Pierce could do whatever he wanted to do.

So will Allen Iverson. Between Iverson and Eric Snow, if one of them had to be traded, you can be pretty sure it would be Snow, if O’Brien had anything to say about it. Snow is a better and purer point guard than Iverson, but Iverson can shoot, pass, and create his own shot.

Expect Iverson to play all 82 games next year. Why? Because he will be motivated. He will be given free roam to take over any game he wants to. He will be encouraged to create shots and make things happen.

Philly’s forwards, however, will need to learn to shoot threes. Kyle Korver will get a lot of playing time if he can pick up the defensive scheme quickly.

With Iverson entering his veteran years, he will be a step slower than he was five years ago, but not to worry: there won’t be that many fast breaks.